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Could Stem Cells Bring an End to the Kidney Donor Shortage?

We readily admit that when we sell centrifuges and stem cell kits to clinics, we are not thinking much about the long-term aspects of stem cell research. We are thinking about equipping doctors who need regenerative medicine equipment and supplies to treat their patients. Thankfully though, researchers aren’t relying on us to do what they do. While we do our thing, they are busy working on things as revolutionary as using stem cells to bring an end to the ongoing kidney donor shortage.

Yes, you read that correctly. A group of scientists at Japan’s National Institute for Physiological Sciences recently published a paper detailing their successful efforts to grow replacement kidneys in rats using a combination of stem cells and blastocysts in a process known as blastocyst complementation.

New Kidneys on Demand

If the Japanese researchers are able to replicate what they did with lab rats in human beings as well, the process could eventually lead to an ability to create functional kidneys virtually on demand. That would be big news to the tens of thousands of people awaiting new kidneys every year.

The unfortunate reality of kidney disease is that there are simply not enough donors to meet the need. Thousands of people suffering from kidney failure die every year without ever having an opportunity to get a transplant. If kidneys on demand ever become a reality, they will change the way modern science treats kidney failure.

As for the process used in the Japanese research, it is a bit bizarre and unconventional. But it apparently works. The goal is now to apply what has been learned in lab animals to human beings. As always, that is the most complicated part.

What the Researchers Did

Researchers around the world have been working on ways to mass produce human tissues for decades. There are a number of strategies being investigated for such purposes, including the previously mentioned blastocyst complementation utilized by the Japanese researchers.

The researchers began with mice specifically bred to lack a functioning kidney. They took blastocysts – clusters of cells that begin developing in the days immediately following egg fertilization – from the mice and introduced them to healthy stem cells by transplanting them into rats.

The stem cells from the rats encouraged the blastocysts to generate functional mice kidneys. Those kidneys were then removed from the rats and transplanted into the mice. Interestingly, researchers first tried going in the other direction – growing rat kidneys in mice – but were unsuccessful.

Possible Applications in the Future

Researchers currently have no explanation as to why their stem cell treatment worked for the mice but not the rats. Once they figure that out, they believe they will be able to translate what they have learned to human applications. They envision a future in which human kidneys are grown using livestock as the hosts.

As the thinking goes, using livestock hosts could facilitate growing new kidneys in large numbers. There would be no harm to the animals while at the same time people suffering from kidney failure would have access to the kidneys they so desperately need. Researchers believe in the potential of their theory enough to say it could someday improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

For us here at Apex Biologix, stem cell therapy doesn’t go much beyond the centrifuges and kits we sell to doctors and clinics. But elsewhere in the world, stem cell therapy holds almost unlimited potential for improving human health. It’s no wonder that we are thrilled to be part of such an amazing industry.

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